On a century-old, European-style courtyard strewn with twinkling lights, towering palm trees, and an ornate central fountain, Saso has opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in Old Pasadena.
Saso is a Basque word that loosely translates to “the sea” and is a fitting name for coastal, all-day dining with an extensive seafood menu. Basque Country is represented well with traditional pintxos (snacks), crudo, and tortas that can take you straight from lunch to happy hour and dinner with dramatic porrón pours of rare txakolina wines from Spain.
If you choose to dine inside, a cheerful, 40-foot, full-wall custom mural by renowned L.A. artist Tim Biskup spans the entire space from bar to back of house and represents land transitioning into the sea—or the kitchen in this case.
After growing up on a third-generation farm and in the Lumos Winery in Oregon, chef Dominique Crisp helmed kitchens at popular seafood spots L&E Oyster Bar in Silver Lake and Blue Plate Oysterette in Santa Monica.
“I want coastal cuisine from Baja to Alaska to shine by showcasing farmers, fishermen, and butchers we work with,” says Crisp. “We need to reconnect with food as much as we need to reconnect with each other.”
While the recipes are steeped in Spanish tradition, you’ll see Asian-Cali influences represented, from crispy croquettes with wagyu and an Iberico ham sandwich with Tillamook cheese to green matcha Basque cheesecake. The standout pasta Saso, with handmade duck-egg-yolk tagliatelle, shellfish, and ginger is a great exploration of all the chef’s influences in one large ceramic bowl.
Here, Crisp gives an inside look.
How would you describe your version of “coastal cuisine”?
Without sounding too cliche, the ingredients must be local and the freshest you can get, but it’s a play on three different coastal regions that are very important to me—the Pacific Northwest, Southern California, and Basque Country. It’s a hybrid of all those elements, a light-hearted, casual dining experience. It’s also important to let these coastal ingredients marry on a hot charcoal grill while cooking at the highest level.
What do you love the most about cooking with seafood?
The connection with the fishermen, the oyster farmers—understanding the meroir—just like we understand the terroir for farming and vineyards. These fishermen, the oyster and clam farmers, are people I know. We all work together to continue to grow and build the Saso story. Without them, there is no Saso.
How are you promoting sustainability?
We respect and utilize every part of the animal and fish. The bones are used for stock and the offcuts are used for elements such as smoked salmon aioli. Even our partner fishermen are dedicated to sustainable farming. We try and avoid single-use disposable items, and our straws are biodegradable. Our charcoal is from Prime 6, a 100% sustainable product, and they plant a tree for every case purchased.
Tell us more about your Basque Country travels that inspired and informed your role today as a chef.
It’s a combination of enjoying a light-hearted meal yet having a deeply rooted connection to the ingredients. Seeing the chefs master cooking with charcoal and a respect for the land and sea while creating a memorable dining experience. The landscape also reminded me of where I grew up in coastal Oregon, a place where giant pine trees meet the wild ocean.
Why did you want to bring this type of restaurant to Pasadena diners at this time?
From the moment I saw the restaurant space and courtyard, it felt like a place where we could be part of the community while also building a community. Our vision is to build a space where guests can come together and create memories. After a long year apart, it feels more important now than ever.